Star Tribune: Getting nonviolent offenders the mental health care they need

The Twin Cities metro area has a severe shortage of secure psychiatric beds — so severe that many inmates who need treatment sit in jail cells for weeks or months before receiving any care.

In response to the needs, this week the Hennepin County Board wisely moved to expand efforts to address the shortage. The board unanimously approved spending $200,000 to study converting a building at the workhouse in Plymouth into the county’s first secure mental health facility. Earlier, the board set aside $13 million for the project.

The new “mental health stabilization center” would house inmates and other residents for shorter-term stays. It would take those who couldn’t get into the Anoka-Metro Regional Treatment Center, are ready to leave the county jail or are temporarily at Hennepin Healthcare.

Hennepin County’s plan to provide more beds is a step in the right direction. But even when the new facility is up and running, it alone will not solve the larger problem in the metro area and across the state. The state of Minnesota and other counties also must do more to provide appropriate treatment for the mentally ill.

A 2016 report from the state’s legislative auditor found that jails often failed to perform mandatory checks of inmates, putting them at risk of self-inflicted injury or suicide or endangering others. The report noted that there had been more than 50 suicides and 770 suicide attempts in Minnesota jails since 2000.

For several years, Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek has rightly urged the state and county to provide adequate facilities and treatment rather than warehousing those suffering from mental illness in jails. Stanek estimates that up to one quarter of the 35,000 to 40,000 admitted to his jail each year have some form of mental illness. And many of them get worse while in custody because jails can’t provide care or treatment as they await court hearings.

The new secure facility will serve the most seriously ill and potentially violent patients. However, Hennepin County has been working to provide a range of improved services for several years.

In late 2016, Hennepin County leaders approved bringing psychologists into the downtown Minneapolis jail complex to evaluate nonviolent offenders who screen positive for psychiatric problems. That allowed them to release dozens of inmates into court-monitored treatment programs. The idea is to help break the cycle of arrest, incarceration and release that has trapped many people with psychiatric disorders in the criminal justice system for relatively minor offenses.

In addition, the county is working with community organizations and Hennepin Healthcare to create a mental health and substance abuse residential treatment program in south Minneapolis.

In Minnesota and nationally, there is growing recognition that many offenders with mental illnesses belong in treatment, not in jail. It’s encouraging that Hennepin County is stepping up to make that happen.

Read the editorial board piece by clicking here.